Francis of Assisi without any doubt is one of the greatest and best-known in the catalogue of saints in that the Church has. As such, it follows that he is one of the most represented. One of the most frequent mental images that most could have of him probably would be him in harmony with nature, a poor man garbed in simple brown (or grey, as it really was at the start), surrounded by a variety of animals, a man very much in touch with nature. It is for this reason that he ahs been linked with ecology and in fact, if I am not mistaken, has been dubbed as the Patron of Ecology. This is totally true: the figure of the Poverello of Assisi was very much linked to the beauty of nature. In fact, perhaps his most famous utterance would be his Canticle to the Sun.
For many, however, the figure of the saint seems to find a dead-end there. Every 4th of October is an occasion for animals to be blessed, and the church, at least, becomes a veritable menagerie of animals, a type of impromptu animal show. But the message of the Poor Man of Assisi was not about the love of animals nor of nature per se. The feast that we celebrate this day ought to allow us to grow deeper in our estimation of the figure of Francis and his message, which certainly goes far beyond the birds and the flowers of the field.
If Francis delighted in the beauty of creation, it was because he delighted in the contemplation of the beauty of God. For him, creation was but a mirror which allowed him a glimpse of that glory which our human eyes are not capable of seeing, both because of the limits that our human nature has set, and also because of sin has made us incapable of being receptive of all this beauty. Everything in nature referred him to its Creator, and to the love which the Creator has lavished on his creatures, most especially man. His Canticle of the Sun is not done in praise of nature, but in praise of its Creator who, through the perfection and beauty of nature, has showered his love upon us. Without this important reference to God, even the beauty of nature loses its meaning, and it becomes a force to be feared, if not to be idolized.
But for Francis, there is an even greater transparency of God: far and above nature, he sees the beauty and the goodness of the invisible God in the human face of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man. Much of Franciscan spirituality and devotion is centered on the humanity of Christ, on the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God. It was Francis who came up with the first manger scene, which nowadays we place almost everywhere. It was Francis who popularized the devotion of the Stations of the Cross. He was a man in love with God, a God who was so in love with man that he himself chose to become one. Our devotion to St. Francis leads us deep into the contemplation of the mystery of God’s love, in which he came down among us, taking our own nature.
This love for the sacred humanity of Christ would lead him to yearn to share in his Passion. This is another detail of his spirituality. The love of God, shown in nature, then in the mystery of the Incarnation, finds its supreme expression in the Cross. Francis’ love for the Crucified was such that the Lord gave him the special grace to bear his wounds physically: the stigmata. He is the first known person in history after Christ to bear the wounds of the Savior. Next to him is his spiritual son, St. Pío of Pietrelcina, another Franciscan (a capuchin, to be exact). Love finds its fullest expression whenever it seeks to replicate the love of the Savior on the Cross, a love that causes one to leave everything, to take up one’s cross and to follow Christ (cf. Lk. 9:23). For Francis, this was the greatest treasure: Christ. In him the words of the Apostle Paul find an echo when the Apostle says “I consider everything as loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted loss of all things and I consider them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (cf. Philippians 3:8).
Christ then, was the underlying secret of his joy in what the world considers as poverty. His possession of God, if it could be expressed thus, was at the very heart of another element of his spirituality. St. Francis shows us that perfect joy is only achieved in having Christ, in establishing a deep friendship with him in prayer and in the attentive reading of the Word of God, in the union achieved through the sacraments, and in sharing him in a life of charity. This is the greatest treasure, this poverty which at the same time is richness beyond compare.
The contemplation of God, fulfilled in the Crucified, leaving everything in order to have Christ as one’s sole possession, and a life of charity towards one’s neighbor as a necessary expression of this perfect joy that comes in having found Christ: this is what is at the heart of Francis of Assisi’s message. May his intercession make it ours as well.